On an October weekend dozens of orange-clad kids aged from four to six years old took the field behind Oakhaven High School to play football. Some with heads just a little smaller than their helmets, sat in the grass encouraging each other from the sidelines or watching the game intently.
Players, teams, and fans watched the pint-sized players run, tackle, and catch. Beaming from the sidelines was Antonio Huntsman, coach and founder of the Orange Mound Raiders.
Huntsman estimates that over the past six years approximately 3,000 boys and girls in his community and throughout the city of Memphis have participated in the Orange Mound Raiders Youth Sports and Mentoring Program.
The nonprofit engages boys and girls from four to fourteen years old in Memphis in activities including basketball, baseball, football, cheer and dance. By rotating seasonal sports, Huntsman said he ensures that the children in the program are involved 11 months a year.
He and the majority of his staff of 23 volunteers and coaches are from Orange Mound, and most of the young participants are from Orange Mound as well. Together, they take the kids to competitions, on trips to introduce them to opportunities outside of Memphis, and have relationship building activities.
“We have won several national titles in football in the city league in various age groups,” he said. “Our basketball program is only three years old, but we have two championships and several other titles. Our baseball leg is also only three years old, but we already have one championship.”
Antonio Huntsman, founder and coach of the Orange Mound Raiders helps a young football player with his helmet as he prepares to take the field for a Saturday morning game.
A native of Orange Mound, Huntsman said he started the program because of his own, “troubled background".
Huntsman joined a gang in middle school and remained involved with gang activity throughout high school. The 1994 Melrose High School graduate was a three-sport letterman for three years playing football, basketball and baseball as a teen. He went to Selma University on a baseball scholarship for a year and left school after his first child was born.
Eventually he served time in jail for three years, and after release he promised himself that he would spend more time helping young people. Huntsman said he thinks he would have taken a different path if he had a male figure in his life at home.
“I feel like when I joined a gang it was to find a father figure,” he said. “I changed myself and I wanted to make sure people didn’t go the same path that I did.”
Huntsman has now been inactive in gang activity for the past 14 years and has served as a gang intervention specialist for Shelby County Schools for six years.
He was previously a head coach with the Orange Mound Buccaneers, another young sports organization. When the team disbanded, Huntsman took up the mantle.
Huntsman said he knew he needed to keep the Buccaneer's 48 young participants involved. With his own resources, he bought sports equipment and started the Orange Mound Raiders.
As Huntsman moves into his seventh year with the Orange Mound Raiders, he and his staff are witnessing youth that grew up in his program go to college, attending schools like the University of Mississippi, Mississippi Valley State University and the University of Missouri to name a few. Some are first-generation college students attending on athletic scholarships.
“It’s just like one of your own kids out of your own household have stepped their game up and made it through the trenches,” he said.
The Raider’s program is a family affair as many of the volunteers and participants are related, something that Huntsman said is the, “Orange Mound way.”
Huntsman's nephews, DeAngelo Howze and Daryl Howze said the Orange Mound Raiders changes their lives. That's especially the case for Daryl, who is a co-founder of the organization.
Of the original group of 20 that Huntsman started with, seven are in college, including 19-year-old DeAngelo.
Young athletes wait and watch on the sidelines as their teammates tackle, run and kick during a Saturday morning football game. The young men cracked jokes and gave each other playing advice during the game.
DeAngelo attends Mississippi Valley State University and is majoring in health and physical education and minoring in math. He plans to become a physical therapist and a football coach for kids. He plans to try out for his college football team in the spring. Because of his ties to the Orange Mound Raiders, he's played football virtually his entire life.
“It’s a big family when you come to the Raiders. It kept me out of trouble at school, gave me something to do as a kid instead of not doing anything, and I got to bond with other kids,” he said.
Desheay Bezill, has three children that participated in the program and still volunteer—13-year-old Deqwan Bezill, who plays at Lausanne Collegiate School on the eighth grade team; 15-year old Emmijal Bezill, who plays football at Sheffield High School and 18-year-old Deshawn Staples, who plays football on scholarship at Kentucky Christian University.
All three boys started playing football when they were four years old.
Bezill said her son Deshawn also played with the Buccaneers and become a Raider. He’s known Huntsman his entire life and volunteers with the Raiders during school breaks. She said as a single-parent, Huntsman's program is invaluable.
“The kids on the Raiders team know if they need help with anything, Coach T [Antonio Huntsman] will help them,” she said. “Even when they go on to college, they come back, help Coach T and volunteer in the community. My kids love him and I love him too because when I need help to do something, he helps and is there for my kids.”
Daryl Howze said programs like the Orange Mound Raiders keep kids involved in healthy activities. He said if it were not for his father and Huntsman, his life would have gone in a different direction.
“They taught me to stay focused and showed me the right direction. So, I had fun growing up in Orange Mound,” he said. “Now, there’s more killing and more young people dying than when I was young. The youth have no guidance now, which is why we try to mentor these young guys and keep them out of trouble."